A backyard compost pile is a pastime, a passion, a pursuit.
It’s all that, and more. I’ve made my pile a big part of my yard, and my life. In return it provides me plenty of exercise, a diversion from other duties and perhaps even a bit of a karmic boost. And in the end my pile pays back (and forward) my investment of time and energy with heaping wheelbarrows full of rich new earth to spread atop the garden and across the yard.
My pile keeps me grounded. More than a hobby, it’s like having a pet. My pile needs care and feeding to keep it active and in good health. I’m devoted to it.
And like any pet owner, I am sensitive to comments about it. One being, “Eww, a compost pile? With all your garbage in it? Won’t that just attract rodents, like rats?
Well, yes — but it’s not my pile’s fault; it’s just doing what a pile does. It’s its nature. It is nature.
We share our suburban landscapes with all kinds of critters, welcome or not. The duplex I lived in in the Hollywood Hills in California, just down the way from rugged Griffith Park, was frequented by all sorts of wildlife. The yard I kept was a real hangout for all kinds of urban critters, chiefly because my downstairs neighbor set out bowls of kibbles and water on her front stoop for her big tom cat. The compost pile was also a draw: One cool morning I dug into the compost pile and surprised a possum that had carved a nesting spot in its warm flanks.
Coming home late from work one evening, I bent over to pet what I thought were the two house cats, mine and hers, crouched beside the dishes, only to realize that the backsides belonged to a skunk and a possum. Thank goodness they paid me no mind, each face buried in a bowl of food. The cats would also scatter whenever a raccoon ambled by. All were afraid of the coyotes that roamed the Hollywood ‘hood at night.
Then the pig arrived. A Christmas present for my downstairs neighbor, it was an adorable little Vietnamese pot-bellied pink piglet with a red bow tied around his thick bristly neck.
Micro pigs were the trendy pet in those days, smarter than a dog, easily house-trained, and with a sense of humor, almost. Plus, this breed was promised to stay cute and cuddly.
The little porker pranced around my neighbor’s ground-floor apartment like a toy poodle on high heels, his hoofs clicking along the wood floors. He used his little snout like the mini-trunk of an elephant, always nosing around, sticking his nozzle into your side for stroking, sniffing out anything and everything. He was the energizer piggy.
And that was the problem. The piglet had one button – the on switch – and he was indefatigable in his search for one thing and one thing only: Food. He was a snout attached to a stomach set on cloven feet.
On occasion, I’d come home from work before my neighbor, and as I tramped upstairs to my apartment, I could hear him below, rooting around. He’d learned how to nose open her kitchen cabinets and delighted in kicking and licking her pots and pans across the apartment in a rackety din. If a pot had a molecule of a food particle, even a memory of a meal, on it, the metal got licked and nosed right until the Teflon wore off.
My neighbor put child-proof locks on all the kitchen cabinets and secured the cat-food bowls. She took the piglet for walks on a leash around the neighborhood. In time, she let him run around the yard, as it was mostly fenced and fairly private from the street.
And then the little piggy sniffed out my compost pile.
At first, I didn’t really mind. Wasn’t it entirely natural that a pig and a compost heap were made for each other? I was prepared to share my bounty, as there’d always been enough to go around. Besides, the pig rooting through my pile did help turn it over a bit.
But soon, the pig’s relentless pursuit of all things edible overwhelmed my little pile. It wasn’t a fair fight. Any bag of fruit and vegetable scraps I added to the mix was gone by the next day. My pile became was his pig pen, his feeding trough, no doubt about it.
The little piggie grew bigger, belying the idea that it would stay cute and cuddly. It put on pounds and pounds each week, and before long had grown to over 100 pounds. Its personality, over-hyped to begin with, grew more single-minded. All it wanted was food; it screamed “Feed Me! Feed Me!” with ever bristly fiber of its being.
I grew resentful and stopped bringing home leftovers from the kitchen. I allowed my pile to devolve into, well, a pig pen, more dust than loamy dirt in the making.
One day I got home to find my neighbor in a fit. She’d left the pig outside rooting around the yard while she was inside her apartment, then found him gone. She printed up “Missing Pig” posters and stapled them onto telephone poles around the neighborhood. The ABC-TV affiliate station was just a couple blocks away, and a news producers saw the flyers and sent a TV crew over to interview her.
“Pignapped! Live at 5!” led the evening newscast. My neighbor, who happened to be a beautiful British ex-pat, was tearfully persuasive in pleading to be reunited with her pig.
Sure enough, some hours later the station got a call from a viewer in East Hollywood, whose neighbor had seen the pig in our yard and absconded with it, he later admitted to the police, to serve as the weekend’s barbecue. The pig was safely returned home.
I moved a while after, taking a job with another magazine on the other side of the country. My neighbor and I stayed in touch, and few months later she called to say that her Christmas gift had grown to 150 pounds of pure surliness. She was sending it to an animal rescue shelter on the outskirts of the Valley, where she said she hoped it would have a long, happy life.
I didn’t miss that pig, but I sure did miss that California compost pile.